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Why it pays to join a big research group if you want to be more scientifically productive

24 Nov 2022 Laura Hiscott
stack of journal papers
Interlinked: a new study suggests that a feedback loop exists between prestige, funding and publications that can reinforce research inequalities. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Vladyslav Starozhylov)

Why do scientists at top universities publish more papers than their peers at less prestigious institutions? According to a new study, it’s because faculty at leading universities are more likely to form large research groups, which in turn are more productive (Sci. Advs. 8 eabq705). Such groups essentially have the money to employ lots of postgraduates and postdocs, who churn out lots of work.

Carried out by a team led by Sam Zhang – a computational social scientist from the University of Colorado at Boulder – the study examined 1.6 million publications written by 78 802 tenured or tenure-track faculty members at 4492 departments in the US. The papers spanned 25 disciplines, which were divided into two types: those (such as the physical sciences) where group leaders usually add co-authors on papers, and those (such as economics) where such “group collaboration norms” do not exist.

After examining the affiliations of each paper’s co-authors, Zhang’s team worked out if faculty members had – or had not – written the articles jointly with their graduate students or post-docs. Papers that had been written together with those junior staff were counted as the faculty member’s “group productivity”, while articles written without their input were described as “individual productivity”.

Faculty in group-norm and non-group-norm disciplines were found to have similar individual productivity – averaging 0.74 and 0.78 papers per year respectively. But when it comes to group productivity, the group-norm disciplines fare better, pumping out 1.92 papers per year compared with 1.05 for non-group-norm subjects. Group productivity also increases with the prestige of an author’s institute, yet individual  productivity remains roughly the same.

Zhang and colleagues then looked at how productivity is linked to the numbers of graduate students or postdoctoral researchers at universities, finding that labour is unevenly distributed by prestige in all disciplines. The physical sciences have a very wide imbalance, with the top 10% of institutes having an average of 4.5 funded graduate and postdoctoral researchers per faculty member, while the bottom decile has just 0.5.

Feedback loop

Given that research groups are often evaluated by how many papers they publish, Zhang is concerned this metric could lead to a positive feedback loop. Large groups, in other words, write lots of papers, which brings them bigger research grants. That extra money lets them recruit additional researchers who write even more papers, further entrenching inequalities.

The authors believe this mechanism gives researchers in elite departments undue dominance over scientific discourse. Furthermore, the research shows that topics vary with institutional prestige, so a more equitable distribution of labour could enrich the breadth of research being done.

“The presence of funded researchers in a department tends to translate into productivity for the faculty and this labour is unequally distributed by prestige,” Zhang told Physics World. “So what questions aren’t being studied because of these disparities? Our work suggests that increasing funded labour in less prestigious institutions can reduce inequalities across science, and to us, that is a worthwhile outcome to strive for.”

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